Size Matters A Follow Up Report

Back in November I published a four part series of articles focusing on a group of orchestras that are in the process of building new concert halls.  One of the points the study concentrated on was how well each orchestra’s management was communicating with and involving the musicians in the design and construction process.  The final article in the study allowed musicians from each orchestra to voice their opinions on this issue.

It’s been over six months since the articles were initially published and I wanted to find out what’s been happening since then.  I contacted Alan Valentine, the executive director of the Nashville Symphony to ask about their progress.

Alan said they have concrete coming out of the ground, and have posted several new 3D CAD drawings of the hall on their web site.  Due to the mild winter, construction is a little ahead of schedule, about $500,000 under budget, and fundraising is on track with planned goals.

One point Alan mentioned was that the musicians began to have concerns that the stage in the new concert hall would be too small to comfortably fit a full orchestra.  According to Bill Wiggins, Nashville Symphony’s Principal Timpanist, the planned stage seemed to be too small for 20th century and contemporary works.  Bill said,

“They taped off our current stage to show us  how the new stage would function, but that just made everyone more concerned.”

Nashville Symphony violist, Chris Farrell, also voiced some concerns about a piano lift system the hall plans to utilize.  Chris said,

“Given that the stage is much wider than it is deep, those of us in the viola section were very concerned that the planned piano lift would break up the section in a very awkward way.”

At that point Alan said the management utilized funds reserved for building mock up portions of the hall to have their construction manager build a 1:1 working model of the stage.  They assembled the stage in their current hall and then conducted a few rehearsals of some larger works on the stage to give the players a chance to see first hand exactly how the stage look and feel once completed.  Management also brought in the project’s acoustician, Paul Scarbrough to answer the musicians questions directly during the rehearsals on the mock up stage.

According to Bill, having a working replica of the new stage went a long way toward improving over the previous taped off version they were previously utilizing.

“The working stage made a big improvement toward letting us know what it would be like in the new hall, but we still had some concerns about really large works that may require an expanded percussion section.”

Chris echoed those statements,

“Although it may be tight on the new stage, we were able to see how we would work around some specific issues regarding space and how individual players sit on stage, but we’re still concerned about how the piano lift will effect everything.”

I then asked both of the musicians how they thought management was doing with addressing their concerns and keeping them up to speed on the project.  Both Bill and Chris had very favorable observations.

Chris said, “I think management has done a good job addressing our concerns over space issues on the new stage.  Having the working model was a big help and being able to ask Paul Scarbrough questions in person was another benefit.  Overall, it was much better to work through some of our issues ahead of time instead of worrying about them over the next few years.”

Bill agreed, saying “Overall, I think the working model helped us see that the layout will certainly work for most of what we will do.  And I’m very happy with the response from our management regarding our concerns, they’ve been doing a good job of keeping everyone up to speed on the project and providing details.  Management even a long breakfast presentation that explained how we’re paying for the hall and what sort of shape we’ll be in over the near future.”

So in Nashville, it appears things are going well regarding communication between managers and musicians.  There are the typical logistical concerns over how things will work in the new location but having a working model that you can touch, see, and even use has made a positive difference.

According to Alan the orchestra will even use the plywood model of the stage for their upcoming Fourth of July outdoor concerts.  He said,

“This way the players can go from using the stage for a few rehearsals to an actual performance.  We plan to use the model as much as possible until the hall is completed.”

As for the other two orchestras in the original series of articles, Richmond (VA) and Kansas City, I have sent inquires about their progress since last November but have yet to hear from their managers.  There have been some rumblings of discontent in Richmond from local arts groups and citizens over the new performing arts center, which will house the new concert hall.   These issues as well as other concerns about usability of the new center were featured in the March issue of Richmond Magazine.

As responses from either of the remaining orchestras come in, I’ll be certain to post them.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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